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Which Nations Conform Most?

An account of Stanley Milgram's experiments from 1962, in which Norwegians and Frenchmen were separately subjected to synthetic group pressure



Bernarda Bryson

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Volume 205, Number 6 of Scientific American in December 1961.

People who travel abroad seem to enjoy sending back reports on what people are like in various countries they visit. A variety of national stereotypes is part and parcel of popular knowledge. Italians are said to be "volatile," Germans "hard-working," the Dutch "clean," the Swiss "neat," the English "reserved," and so on. The habit of making generalizations about national groups is not a modern invention. Byzantine war manuals contain careful notes on the deportment of foreign populations, and Americans still recognize themselves in the brilliant national portrait drawn by Alexis de Tocqueville more than 100 years ago.

And yet the skeptical student must always come back to the question: "How do I know that what is said about a foreign group is true?" Prejudice and personal bias may color such accounts, and in the absence of objective evidence it is not easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. Thus the problem faced by the modern investigator who wishes to go beyond literary description is how to make an objective analysis of behavioral differences among national groups. By this he means simply an analysis that is not based on subjective judgments and that can be verified by any competent investigator who follows the same methods.

It is easy to show objectively that people in different countries often speak different languages, eat different foods and observe different social customs. But can one go further and show national differences in "character" or "personality"? When we turn to the more subtle dimensions of behavior, there is very little evidence to make a case for national differences. It is not that such differences are to be denied out of hand; it is just that we lack sufficient reliable information to make a clear judgement.

Before reporting the results of my own study let me refer briefly to some earlier efforts to achieve objectivity in studying this elusive problem. One approach has been to examine the literature and other cultural products of a nation in the hope of identifying underlying psychological characteristics. For example, Donald V. McGranahan of Harvard University studied successful stage plays performed in Germany and the U.S. and concluded that German stage characters were more devoted to principles and ideological notions, whereas the Americans were more concerned with the attainment of purely personal satisfactions. The obvious limitation of such a study is that the behavior and attitudes under examination are the synthetic ones of the stage and may bear little or no resemblance to those of real life.

Another indirect approach has relied on the tools of clinical psychology. This method was pioneered by anthropologists in the study of small, primitive societies and has only recently been applied to modern urban nations. These studies rely heavily on such tests as the Rorschach ink-blot test and the thematic apperception test (T.A.T.). In the latter the subject is shown a drawing of a situation that can be variously interpreted and is asked to make up a story about it. The major difficulty here is that the tests themselves have not been adequately validated and are basically impressionistic.

Finally, sample surveys of the type developed by Elmo Roper and George Gallup in this country have been applied to the problem. Geoffrey Gorer, an English social scientist, based his study Exploring English Character on a questionnaire distributed to 11,000 of his compatriots. The questions dealt with varied aspects of English life, such as courtship patterns, experiences in school and practices in the home. Unfortunately there are many reasons why an individual's answer may not correspond to the facts. He may deliberately distort his answers to produce a good impression, or he may have genuine misconceptions of his own behavior, attributable either to faulty memory or to the blindness people often exhibit toward their own actions and motivations.

These methods should not be dismissed as unimportant in the study of national characteristics: Yet in principle if one wants to know whether the people of one nation behave differently from those of another, it would seem only reasonable to examine the relevant behavior directly, and to do so under conditions of controlled observations in order to reduce the effects of personal bias and to make measurement more precise.

An important step in this direction was reported in 1954 by an international team of psychologists who worked together as the Organization for Comparative Social Research. This team studied reactions to threat and rejection among school children in seven European nations, using hypotheses advanced by Stanley Schachter of Columbia University. The inquiry was not specifically designed to study national characteristics but chiefly to see if certain concepts regarding threat and rejection would hold up when tested in different countries. In the course of the study certain differences between countries did turn up, but the investigators felt they were not necessarily genuine. Conceivably they were due to defects in the experiment or to inadequacies in the theory behind it. Although its focus was on theory validation, this study is a landmark in cross-national research. Unfortunately the Organization for Comparative Social Research halted its research program when the study was completed.

My own investigation was begun in 1957. My objective was to see if experimental techniques could be applied to the study of national characteristics, and in particular to see if one could measure conformity in two European countries: Norway and France. Conformity was chosen for several reasons. First, a national culture can be said to exist only if men adhere, or conform, to common standards of behavior; this is the psychological mechanism underlying all cultural behavior. Second, conformity has become a burning issue in much of current social criticism; critics have argued that people have become too sensitive to the opinions of others, and that this represents an unhealthy development in modern society. Finally, good experimental methods have been developed for measuring conformity.

The chief tool of investigation was a modified form of the group-pressure experiment used by Solomon E. Asch and other social psychologists [see "Opinions and Social Pressure," by Solomon E. Asch, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, November, 1955]. In Asch's original experiment a group of half a dozen subjects was shown a line of a certain length and asked to say which of three other lines matched it. All but one of the subjects had been secretly instructed beforehand to select one of the "wrong" lines on each trial or in a certain percentage of the trials. The naive subject was so placed that he heard the answers of most of the group before he had to announce his own decision. Asch found that under this form of social pressure a large fraction of subjects went along with the group rather than accept the unmistakable evidence of their own eyes.

Our experiment is conducted with acoustic tones rather than with lines drawn on cards. Five of the subjects are confederates of the experimenter and conspire to put social pressure on the sixth subject. The subjects listen to two tones and are asked to say which is the longer. The five confederates answer first and their decisions are heard by the subject, who answers last. The confederates have been instructed to announce wrong answers on 16 of the 30 trials that constitute one experiment.

We elected to use tones rather than lines because they are better suited to an experimental method using "synthetic groups." Two psychologists working at Yale University, Robert Blake and Jack W. Brehm, had discovered that grouppressure experiments can be conducted without requiring the actual presence of confederates. It is sufficient if the subject thinks they are present and hears their voices through headphones. With tape recordings it is easy to create synthetic groups. Tapes do not have to be paid by the hour and they are always available.

When the test subject entered our laboratory, he saw several coats on hangers and immediately got the impression that others were present. He was taken to one of six closed booths, where he was provided with headphones and a microphone. As he listened to the instructions through the headphones he overheard the voices of the other "subjects" and assumed that all the booths were occupied. During the actual experiment he would hear five taped answers before he was asked to give his own.

Except when we made a technical slip the subject never caught on to the trick. Most subjects became deeply involved in the situation, and strong tensions were generated when they realized they must stand alone against five unanimous opponents. This situation created a genuine and deeply felt conflict that had to be resolved either through independence or conformity.

Once we had refined our techniques at Harvard University we were ready to experiment abroad with Norwegian and French subjects. In which of the two national environments would people go along with the group more and in which would there be greater independence?

Most of the subjects used in the Norwegian study were students attending the University of Oslo. Because this is the only full-fledged university in Norway, a good geographic representation was obtained. Our test sample included students from beyond the Arctic Circle, from the fiord country of western Norway and from Trondheim, the former Viking capital.

When the study moved to Paris, French students were selected who matched the Norwegians in age, level of education, fields of study, sex, marital status and-so far as possible-social class. Once again a good geographic distribution was obtained, because students from all parts of France came to study in Paris. A few of the French subjects came from French North African cities. Those used in the experiment were culturally as French as people living on the mainland; they were of French parentage and had been educated in French lycees.

In Norway the entire experiment was conducted by a native Norwegian and all the recorded voices were those of natives. In France the experiments were conducted by native Frenchmen. Much effort was made to match the tone and quality of the Norwegian and French groups. We made many recordings until people who were sensitive to the nuances of both languages were satisfied that equivalent group atmospheres had been achieved.

Twenty Norwegian subjects and the same number of French subjects were studied in the first set of experiments. The Norwegian subjects conformed to the group on 62 per cent of the critical trials (that is, trials in which the group deliberately voted wrong); the French subjects conformed to the group on 50 per cent of the critical trials.

After each subject had taken part in the experiment he was told its true character and was asked to give his reactions. Almost all participants in both countries had accepted the experiment at face value and admitted feeling the strong pressure of the group. A Norwegian student from a farm in Nordland, above the Arctic Circle, said: "I think the experiment had a very ingenious arrangement. I had no idea about the setup until it was explained to me. Of course, it was a little embarrassing to be exposed in such a way." A self-critical student from Oslo remarked: "It was a real trick and I was stupid to have fallen into the trap....It must be fun to study psychology." Similar reactions were obtained in France, where students were impressed with the idea of psychological experimentation. (In neither country is psychological research as widespread or as intensive as it is in the U.S., so that subjects are relatively unsophisticated about psychological deceptions.)

It would have been superficial, of course, to conduct just one experiment in Norway, another in France and then draw conclusions. In a second experiment we undertook to change the subject's attitude toward the importance of the experiment itself to see if this might alter the original findings. In this new series of trials (and in all subsequent ones) the subjects were told that the results of the experiments would be applied to the design of aircraft safety signals. In this way their performance was linked to a life-and-death issue. As one might have predicted, the subjects this time showed somewhat greater independence of the group, but once again the level of conformity was higher in Norway (56 per cent) than it was in France (48 per cent).

One possibility that had to be considered at the outset was that Norwegians and Frenchmen differ in their capacity for discriminating tonal lengths and that this led to the greater number of errors made by Norwegians in the group situation. We were able to show, however, by giving each subject a tone-discrimination test, that there was no difference in the level of discrimination of students in the two countries.

In both of the first two conformity experiments the subjects were required to do more than decide an issue in the face of unanimous opposition: they were also required to announce that decision openly for all to hear (or so the subject thought). Thus the act had the character of a public statement. We all recognize that the most obvious forms of conformity are the public ones. For example, when prevailing standards of dress or conduct are breached, the reaction is usually immediate and critical. So we decided we had better see if the Norwegians conformed more only under public conditions, when they had to declare their answers aloud. Accordingly, we undertook an experiment in both countries in which the subject was allowed to record his answers on paper rather than announce them to the group. The experiments were performed with a new group of 20 Norwegian and 20 French students.

When the requirement of a public response was eliminated, the amount of conformity dropped considerably in both countries. But for the third time the French subjects were more independent than the Norwegians. In Paris students went along with the group on 34 per cent of the critical trials. In Oslo the figure was close to 50 per cent. Therefore elimination of the requirement of a public response reduced conformity 14 percentage points in France but only 6 percentage points in Norway.

It is very puzzling that the Norwegians so often voted with the group, even when given a secret ballot. One possible interpretation is that the average Norwegian, for whatever reason, believes that his private action will ultimately become known to others. Interviews conducted among the Norwegians offer some indirect evidence for this conjecture. In spite of the assurances that the responses would be privately analyzed, one subject said he feared that because he had disagreed too often the experimenter would assemble the group and discuss the disagreements with them.

Another Norwegian subject, who had agreed with the group 12 out of 16 times, offered this explanation: "In the world now, you have to be not too much in opposition. In high school I was more independent than now. It's the modern way of life that you have to agree a little more. If you go around opposing, you might be looked upon as bad. Maybe this had an influence." He was then asked, "Even though you were answering in private?" and he replied, "Yes. I tried to put myself in a public situation, even though I was sitting in the booth in private."

A fourth experiment was designed to test the sensitivity of Norwegian and French subjects to a further aspect of group opinion. What would happen if subjects were exposed to overt and audible criticism from the conspiratorial group? It seemed reasonable to expect a higher degree of conformity under these conditions. On the other hand, active criticism might conceivably lead to a greater show of independence. Moreover, the Norwegians might react one way and the French another. Some of my associates speculated that audible criticism would merely serve to annoy the French subjects and make them stubborn and more resistant to the influence of the group.

To test these notions we recorded a number of appropriate reactions that we could switch on whenever the subject gave a response that contradicted the majority. The first sanction, in both Norway and France, was merely a slight snicker by a member of the majority. The other sanctions were more severe. In Norway they were based on the sentence "Skal du stikke deg ut?" which may be translated: "Are you trying to show off?" Roughly equivalent sentences were used with the French group. In Paris, when the subject opposed the group, he might hear through his headphones:
"Voulez-vous vous faire remarquer?" ("Trying to be conspicuous?")

In both Norway and France this overt social criticism Significantly increased conformity. In France subjects now went along with the majority on 59 per cent of the critical trials. In Norway the percentage rose to 75 per cent. But the reactions of subjects in the two countries was even more striking. In Norway subjects accepted the criticism impassively. In France, however, more than half the subjects made some retaliatory response of their own when the group criticized them. Two French students, one from the Vosges mountain district and the other from the Department of Eure-et-Loire, became so enraged they directed a stream of abusive language at their taunters.

Even after we explained in the interview session that the entire experimental procedure had been recorded on tape, many of the subjects did not believe us. They could not understand how we could interject comments with such verisimilitude, particularly since we could not predict how they would respond at any given moment. This was achieved by making use of two tape recorders. One played the standard tape containing tones and the group judgments, with "dead" time for the subject; the other contained only the set of "criticisms " from members of the group. The two instruments could be controlled independently, allowing us to inject a remark whenever the subject's responses made it appropriate. The remarks followed the subject's independent responses immediately, creating a highly spontaneous effect.

Another series of experiments was designed to aid in the interpretation of the earlier findings. For example, many Norwegian subjects rationalized their behavior by stating in the interview that they went along with the others because they doubted their own judgment, and that if they had been given a chance to dispel this doubt they would have been more independent. An experiment was therefore carried out to test this notion. The subject was given a chance to reexamine the stimulus materials before giving his final judgment. He did this by sounding a bell in his booth whenever he wished to hear a pair of tones again. As before, the subject was openly censured by the group if he failed to conform, but he was not censured merely for asking to hear the tones repeated. It turned out that even the relatively simple act of requesting a repetition must be construed as an act of considerable independence. Only five of the Norwegians asked for a repetition of a tone on any trial, whereas 14 of the French subjects were "bold" enough to do so. And again the French showed more independence over-all, voting with the group on 58 per cent of the critical trials, compared with 69 per cent for the Norwegians.

The study next moved out of the university and into the factory. When we tested 40 Norwegian industrial workers, we found that their level of conformity was about the same as that of the Norwegian students. There was, however, one important difference. Students were often tense and agitated during the experiment. The industrial workers took it all with good humor and frequently were amused when the true nature of the experiment was explained. We have not yet managed to study a comparable group of industrial workers in France.

No matter how the data are examined they point to greater independence among the French than among the Norwegians. Twelve per cent of the Norwegian students conformed to the group on every one of the 16 critical trials, while only 1 per cent of the French conformed on every occasion. Forty-one per cent of the French students but only 25 per cent of the Norwegians displayed strong independence. And in every one of the five experiments performed in both countries the French showed themselves to be the more resistant to group pressure.

These findings are by no means conclusive. Rather they must be regarded as the beginning of an inquiry that one would like to see extended. But incomplete as the findings are, they are likely to be far more reliable than armchair speculation on national character.

It is useful, nevertheless, to see if the experimental results are compatible with a nation's culture as one can observe it in daily life. If there were a conflict between the experimental findings and one's general impressions, further experiments and analysis would be called for until the conflict had been resolved. Conceivably the discrepancy might be due to viewing the culture through a screen of stereotypes and prejudices rather than seeing it with a clear eye. In any case, in our study experiment and observation seem to be in reasonable agreement. For whatever the evidence may be worth, I will offer my own impressions of the two countries under examination.

I found Norwegian society highly cohesive. Norwegians have a deep feeling of group identification, and they are strongly attuned to the needs and interests of those around them. Their sense of social responsibility finds expression in formidable institutions for the care and protection of Norwegian citizens. The heavy taxation required to support broad programs of social welfare is borne willingly. It would not be surprising to find that social cohesiveness of this sort goes hand in hand with a high degree of Conformity.

Compared with the Norwegians, the French show far less consensus in both social and political life. The Norwegians have made do with a single constitution, drafted in 1814, while the French have not been able to achieve political stability within the framework of four republics. Though I hardly propose this as a general rule of social psychology, it seems true that the extreme diversity of opinion found in French national life asserts itself also on a more intimate scale. There is a tradition of dissent and critical argument that seeps down to the local bistro. The high value placed on critical judgment often seems to go beyond reasonable bounds; this in itself could account for the comparatively low degree of conformity we found in the French experiments. Furthermore, as Stanley Schachter has shown, the chronic existence of a wide range of opinion helps to free the individual from social pressure. Much the same point is made in recent studies of U.S. voting behavior. They reveal that the more a person is exposed to diverse viewpoints, the more likely he is to break away from the voting pattern of his native group. All these factors would help to explain the relatively independent judgments shown by French students.

The experiments demonstrate, in any case, that social conformity is not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon, as some critics would have us believe. Some amount of conformity would seem necessary to the functioning of any social system. The problem is to strike the right balance between individual initiative and social authority.

One may ask whether or not national borders really provide legitimate boundaries for the study of behavioral differences. My feeling is that boundaries are useful only to the extent to which they coincide with cultural, environmental or biological divisions. In many cases boundaries are themselves a historical recognition of common cultural practice. Furthermore, once boundaries are established they tend to set limits of their own on social communication.

For all this, a comparison of national cultures should not obscure the enormous variations in behavior within a single nation. Both the Norwegians and the French displayed a full range of behavior from complete independence to complete conformity. Probably there is no significant national comparison in which the extent of overlap does not approach or match the extent of differences. This should not prevent us, however, from trying to establish norms and statistically valid generalizations on behavior in different nations.

We are now planning further research in national characteristics. In a recent seminar at Yale University students were given the task of trying to identify behavioral characteristics that might help to illuminate the Nazi epoch in German history. The principal suggestions were that Germans might be found to be more aggressive than Americans, to submit more readily to authority and to display greater discipline. Whether these assumptions will hold up under experimental inquiry is an open question. A team of German and American investigators is planning a series of experiments designed to provide a comparative measure of behavior in the two countries.

 

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